Atheists and agnostics know more about the world’s religions than believers do

I’m not the one who says that. I’m only repeating the findings of a recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, and that shocked many with the revelation that atheists and agnostics tend to know more about the world’s religions than believers do.

Pew researchers asked more than 3,000 Americans 32 central questions about the Bible, Christianity and other world religions. On average, people who took the survey got half the answers wrong – and many even tripped on basic questions about their own faith.

According to the study, Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.

A large numbers of Americans are (unsurprisingly?) uninformed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions – including their own. Yep, you too are raising an eyebrow… but check this out:

According to the study findings, about a stunning 53% of Protestants cannot correctly identify Martin Luther as the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation, which made their religion a separate branch of Christianity. In addition, fewer than half of Americans (47%) know that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist. ‘Dalai Lama’ sounds like a fundamentalist terrorist name anyway. Fewer than four-in-ten (38%) correctly associate Vishnu and Shiva with Hinduism. And only about a quarter of all Americans (27%) correctly answer that most people in Indonesia – the country with the world’s largest Muslim population – are Muslims. Hmm, can you actually remind me where Indonesia is?

On the full battery of seven questions about the Bible (five Old Testament and two New Testament items) Mormons do best, followed by white evangelical Protestants. Atheists/agnostics, black Protestants and Jews come next, all exhibiting greater knowledge of the Bible than white mainline Protestants and white Catholics. I don’t really know what to say about that, but I’d certainly be keen to hear the views of my Protestant and Catholic friends – any comments?

On world religions other than Christianity, about six-in-ten Americans (62%) know that most people in India are Hindus – well done guys. About half know that Ramadan is the Islamic holy month (52%) and can name the Koran as the Muslim holy book (54%) – you’d think more though, after all the fuss surrounding the so-called War on Terror… Roughly one-third (36%) correctly associate striving for nirvana with Buddhism. So, hmm, two-third associate it with a rock band?…

What factors seem to contribute to religious knowledge? You won’t be surprised to learn that data from the survey indicate that educational attainment – how much schooling an individual has completed – is the single best predictor of religious knowledge. Other factors linked with religious knowledge include reading Scripture at least once a week and talking about religion with friends and family.

I guess another good reason behind the shocking findings of the Pew study is that nearly half of Americans who are affiliated with a religion (48%) say they “seldom” or “never” read books (other than Scripture) or visit websites about their own religion, and 70% say they seldom or never read books or visit websites about other religions.

Personally, I have to say that, beyond the US, I’ve met a number of religious persons of different faiths in different countries seriously lacking knowledge – or even curiosity – about their religion. Not that I necessarily know much more than them, but at least I make the conscious effort to learn as much as I can about the world’s many religions. It seems that not everyone is interested in understanding the (actual) history, construction, dilemmas as well as dogmas behind their religion. Or even to question what does make their religion the ‘true’ religion – as opposed to one among many. Religious readers, please prove me wrong!



  • Stamp

    It’s hard being an Atheist because in order to intelligently reject religion and God outright you need to study all religions.

    It’s easy being a believer, once you’ve found your religion you can simply reject the rest.


    Making Sense of Things Reply:

    I understand what you say; I’m always struck by the fact that all the believers I know are absolutely convinced that they have the Truth…


  • Stamp

    On reading my comment again, I should have said “once your religion is choosen for you”

    The only Truth I know is I don’t know. That’s not very satisfying for most people but it seems to be the only defensible position and starting point to knowing more.


    Making Sense of Things Reply:

    You are then on the same line than Socrate, who also argued that the only truth that he knew is that he didn’t know 🙂


  • Kevin

    As a Christian, I’m intrigued to hear about this study. It makes me feel the same way the “Stupid Americans” videos on Youtube do. It’s never good to watch your fellow believers or citizens being shamed for their lack of knowledge. Quite frankly, it makes me wonder how I would “perform” in the same situation. I don’t claim to have all the answers or to be very knowledgeable, but does that really matter? This post and the responses reminds me of a message my pastor gave recently. He posed the question, “What do you know for sure.” Personally, I know for sure that the God of the Bible, existing in three persons – Father, Son and Spirit – exists. I know that my relationship with him is genuine because he has revealed himself to me in undeniable ways. I know that our lives on earth are temporary and that true life begins after our earthly death. In my opinion, knowledge of world religions is important, but belief in the one true God is what is critical.


  • Making Sense of Things

    Hello Kevin, thanks a lot for your comment. Be reassured that we don’t claim performing better than the average, but that, at least, we are aware of our lack of knowledge and work on it to improve on that front!…
    You mention the Father, Son and Spirit trinity, but did you know that the Trinity as we know it is the product of debates among Christians that took several centuries to unfold? History (among other disciplines) is critical to understand why we end up believing in one religion.
    Most – if not all – of my exchanges with believers end up the same way: we may share heaps of values and worldviews but eventually, faith is what distinguishes us. Some people believe in God, others don’t. As long as everyone respects each others’ differences, I have no problems with that then! 🙂


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